Colombo Telegraph

SLFP Leader As Chief Guest At UNP’s Celebration; A Slap On Loyalists Or A Visionary’s Bold Challenge?

By Vishwamithra1984

If they answer not to thy call walk alone…when the night is troubled with storm, O thou of evil luck, with the thunder flame of pain ignite thine own heart and let it burn alone.” ~Rabindranath Tagore

President Maithripala Sirisena

It was reported last week that President Maithripala Sirisena will be the Chief Guest at the 70th Anniversary celebrations of the United National Party (UNP). Maithripala Sirisena is not only the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka; he is the current leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), in the last six decades the SLFP has been the chief political nemesis of the UNP. Any student of Sri Lanka’s post-Independence political history would know that the SLFP, even though has always been reckoned as an alternative to the UNP, drew its major portion of membership from the left-oriented Sinhala-speaking, Swabhasha-educated electorate. Its fundamental premise was public-sector dominated, nationalization-driven economy overlaid with a nationalistic (not necessarily patriotic) veneer. When it suited them, they covered their economic policies with a nationalistic wrapper while their socio-cultural policies were coated with a socialist veneer. This mutual juxtaposition of coverings helped them to message their appeal to be more populist rather than practical and rational.

While the progressive-minded, yet not so radical voter, who would have identified with policies and principles propagated by the then left-wing parties such as the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP,) was attracted to the SLFP for most obvious reasons, the more militant and radical leftists were retained by the LSSP and CP and later by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). There is no doubt that a significant segment of the UNP voting bloc too may have thrown in their lot with the SLFP; but that would have essentially been those whose familiarity with the vernacular and attracted by the fivefold pillars of the Bandaranaike doctrine – Sanga (Buddhist Clergy), Veda (Indigenous doctors), Guru (School teacher), Govi (farmer) and Kamkaru (proletariat) of Sri Lankan society. When SWRD Bandaranaike, the founder of the SLFP, formed the SLFP, its core of elites may have come from the UNP. But the at grassroots level, majority of their voters would have come from the left parties that existed at the time.

We also have to bear in mind that that whenever the contest was between the UNP and SLFP, the UNP came on top barring 1960 July General Elections. Every other time it was an SLFP-led left-oriented coalition that was voted into power. While the UNP was portrayed as a political party exclusively representing the elitist, English-speaking, capitalist political entity, every other party of the coalition led by the SLFP fought among each other to be accepted as the sole representative of the ‘common man’. Largely Sinhala-speaking and bent on a fresh econo-political dynamic of ‘nationalization frenzy’, these voters, apart from the populist measures of a welfare state economy, had one singularly stark center: the Bandaranaike family’. The leadership of the SLFP was never bestowed upon an outsider and seniority was no distinguishable criterion for the selection of the leader either. In other words, the SLFP remained primarily a family-dominated political party playing to the historical character of Sinhalese Buddhists of who are more attracted to a personality cult rather than to counsel of councils.

Forged by the Swabhasha policy, the Bandaranaike doctrine, if there were any like that, included, among others, nationalization of private businesses and government takeover of private schools coupled with sweeping tilts towards quasi-socialist dogmas that played a vital and pivotal role in the mindset of the underprivileged classes of Sri Lanka society in the fifties and sixties and even in the seventies. A mindset that was shaped and buttressed by ceaseless propaganda, the SLFP became the vanguard of the rural Sinhalese masses.

The UNP did not have a persuasive alternative to this. That was until J R Jayewardene became its leader. A politician of consummate skill in both strategy and tactics, a devoted student of numbers, apart from introducing some fresh faces of men and women, and a man of uncommon discipline, J R J instilled in the minds of the UNP membership an unflappable sense of urgency and drive. The results of this six-year long campaign in the early seventies propelled the Party into a historic electoral victory in 1977 and unbroken seventeen-year long rule.

After the two terms of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, once again, the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party passed on to another family – the Rajapaksas. What happened during the Rajapaksa rule is now a stinking chapter of recent history. The party followers, mainly at the grassroots level, began the deifying process of the Rajapaksas. The war-victory against the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and Prabhakaran further solidified the stance of the Rajapaksas in the country, particularly in the far out rural districts where the overwhelming majority is made up of Sinhalese Buddhists.

In the wake of the assassination of the second tier leadership of the UNP, consisting of Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali, the UNP went into political wilderness until it dawned on the current leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe that a sure route back to the helm of the country lay in a craftily laid out strategy; a strategy that involved a major defection from the Rajapaksa-centered SLFP-led coalition. Maithripala Sirisena, the then Secretary of the SLFP and Minister of Health reached a landmark decision. A decision that would have frightened an ordinary man and sent him to fits of indecision and resultant terror, Maithripala Sirisena was not afraid to take.

This is the context within which the person of Maithripala Sirisena has to be discussed and debated about. For the first time ever in the history of the SLFP, its esteemed mantle has fallen on a Sirisena, an ordinary, non-aristocratic (not that the Rajapaksas are aristocratic), a genuine product of the ’56 transformation. Steeped in the Bandaranaike doctrine, Sirisena after assuming Presidency of the country became the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. His family members are not involved in politics. And his declaration that he sought no second term added to the sincerity of purpose and heavier weight to his responsibility as new Commander-in-Chief. Given that background, Sirisena’s presumed attendance at the 70th Anniversary Celebrations of the UNP is significant. One does not have to look for any nuanced circumstances and get lost in the land of ‘beyond the obvious’ like most pundits do. Moreover, it comes amidst chaotic circumstances that prevail within the ranks of the SLFP in which the Rajapaksa faction holds substantial say, particularly among some notable parliamentarians and Provincial Councilors.

When it comes to political strategy and tactics, Ranil Wickremesinghe has proven to be no tyro either. How does a political leader who also happens to be the Prime Minister of the country play his political cards cleverly without surrendering his trumps? Ranil Wickremesinghe had massive leadership issues soon after the previous Presidential Election at which Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated Sarath Fonseka. A chaotic party dynamic and a resultant challenge to his leadership by his longtime second-in-command Karu Jayasuriya, the current Speaker of the House of Parliament, apparently have tempered the steely persona of Wickremesinghe.

Both Ranil and Maithripala know fully well that it was the bulk of the UNP and the overwhelming (well over 90% of the Tamil and Muslim), minority vote that delivered the successful results of the 2015 Presidential Elections. The strength of this uncommon coalition government of the UNP-SLFP is the strength of bond that exists between the leaders of their respective parties. That bond between Ranil and Maithripala needs to be further strengthened and any weakening or crack would certainly signal a damage to that coalition. Loose talks by some SLFP parliamentarians about defeating the UNP is just that- loose. That faction of the SLFP which continues to harbor dreams about coming back to occupy the governing seats is not only delusionary, it tells a story about as to how much they miss that corrupting taste of luxuries and over-indulgences of power they enjoyed for two full decades.

In politics, it’s all context. Only half-baked novices would glorify themselves by dwelling in insulated capsules of events and try to prognosticate and forecast and invariably be found gravely deficient in judgment and action that ensues those actions. Taken out of context, Maithripala Sirisena’s participation at a UNP Anniversary celebration would be treated as a slap on the face of the SLFP loyalists. But within the context of the above analysis, it could be in fact portrayed as a sincere attempt at serious reconciliation between the two Sinhala-dominated political parties in Sri Lanka. Maithripala Sirisena has shown grace and courage when he accepted the UNP’s invitation. It was no slap on SLFP loyalists; it is a visionary’s challenge to the status quo.

The writer can be contacted at vishwamithra1984@gmail.com

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